Refugees in Central Washington are making new holiday traditions

Families from Ukraine and Afghanistan celebrate the season with communities they have found in Wenatchee.

People stand in church pews and pray

Karyna and Oleg Bukovstov and other church members pray during a Sunday service at the First Slavic Baptist Church in Wenatchee. The church, which is held in Russian and attended by Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian families, has been a safe haven and a place to find community for the Bukovstov family. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Oleg Bukovstov has been a member of the First Slavic Baptist Church in East Wenatchee for only about two months, but on Sunday, Dec. 18, he stood at the pulpit and preached from the Book of Malachi. He preached in Russian to a group of Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian expatriates in a hall festooned with garlands and wreaths. 

Oleg Bukovstov gives a sermon from the Book of Malachi to the congregation of the First Slavic Baptist Church in Wenatchee, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. Bukovstov and his family fled their home near Odessa, Ukraine earlier this year as Russian bombs began falling and warships appeared in the Black Sea. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

“Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously, every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?” read a quote projected on the wall behind him, right above a large Nativity scene.

Before Russian bombs and rockets started dropping less than a year ago, Bukovstov, his wife Karyna, and their three daughters were back home in Ukraine, living in a small village near Odessa. But about 20 days after the Russians invaded their country, Oleg and Karyna saw warships in the Black Sea, and the Bukovstovs decided to get their girls to safety.

Sofiia Bukovstov, 12, left, and her friend Kseniia Ryzhkova, 11, right, chat during sunday school at the First Slavic Baptist Church in Wenatchee, Dec. 18, 2022. The church which is held in Russian and attended by Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian families, has been a safe haven and a place to find community for the Bukovstov family. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Left: A neighborhood in Wenatchee is covered in snow, Dec. 17, 2022. Right: A painting of the wheat fields and blue skies the Ukrainian flag takes its colors from is displayed on a bookshelf in the Bukovstov’s home. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

“At that point, men were not being let out of Ukraine because of the war, except for special circumstances, like having three or more kids,” Karyna said through a translator. ”But there were still misconceptions with that, so we were very worried Oleg would not be let out.”

They fled across the border to Moldova, to a Bible camp-turned-refugee camp run by friends. Through church connections, they were able to make it to Washington and the Wenatchee Valley in late April. 

Although the Al Noori family is Muslim and not celebrating Christmas, they also have benefitted from the warmth and support they are receiving this holiday season from their new friends in the same Wenatchee community.

The Al Noori family’s journey to the Wenatchee Valley took much longer, and their ordeal did not end once they were out of Afghanistan. Reshad Al Noori, his wife Fatima, and their three daughters spent two nights caught between U.S. and NATO forces and Taliban fighters during the Kabul Airlift in August 2021. He described the chaos and the terror they felt while trapped outside the airfield.

Left: Reshad Al Noori spent 10 years working for NATO at a U.S. Army base in Kabul. When American forces pulled out of Afghanistan, Al Noori was forced to flee with his family or face being targeted by the Taliban. Right: Fatima Al Noori laughs with her daughter Maryan, 4, in their home in Wenatchee. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

On one side was simulated gunfire from the air cannons of the NATO forces trying to scare people away from crowding against a wall of concrete blocks and barbed wire. On the other side was the Taliban, firing into the air and terrifying people for their own reasons. 

“It was a very bad situation,” he recalled. “As a father, I was, hmm, I don’t know enough English to explain. But it was a really, really scary time.”

Ultimately, they were able to leave because Reshad had worked on the U.S. Army base in Kabul for about a decade before the Americans pulled out of the country. Even though he worked at non-combat-related jobs like laundry supervisor, customer-service assistant, and engraving designer, he would have been targeted by the Taliban after coalition forces were gone. So he and Fatima huddled with their three young daughters among the crowd in August 2021 and hoped to get out alive.

At about 2 a.m. on the second night, American soldiers raised a net and let them through, and they boarded a charter flight to the United Arab Emirates. The family would spend the next nine months in a notorious refugee camp former inhabitants call “the Abu Dhabi jail.” 

For two months the family languished in a tiny one-room shelter, unable to leave to get fresh air or take short walks. The reason for the strict confinement was COVID protocols, but for the family of five it felt like punishment. They spent nine months in the refugee camp.

After protests in the camp brought to light the poor conditions there, U.S. officials took action, and the Al Noori family was among about 7,000 Afghan refugees transported to the U.S. They first arrived in Virginia, but after a group of Wenatchee Valley volunteers calling themselves the Wenatchee Valley Afghan Support Circle offered to serve as patrons and helpers for Afghan refugees, they moved to Wenatchee Valley and now call Central Washington home. 

Wenatchee City Hall is lit red and green for the holidays, Dec. 17, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Like the Bukovstovs, the Al Nooris have three daughters. Unlike the Bukovstovs, the Al Nooris don’t have a community of fellow countrymen and women in Wenatchee. Reshad speaks English, but his wife Fatima does not. They travel to spend time with other Afghan refugee families in the Seattle, Kent and Olympia areas, but now that it’s winter and driving conditions on the passes can be dangerous, they have not seen their friends for a while. 

Fatima is taking ESL classes twice a week and working with retired English teachers who are tutoring her on the side, but Reshad said his wife feels isolated and depressed. She hasn’t been eating or sleeping much, and he’s worried about her.

“She doesn’t have friends,” he said. “She only takes care of the kids.”

The family has been invited to social events and dinners, but Fatima cannot understand much of what is said and feels out of place.

Fatima Al Noori watches from the couch as her husband Reshad plays with their three daughters at home in Wenatchee on Dec. 17, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Both families say they are fortunate to have volunteer groups providing support. In addition to the English tutoring, the Wenatchee Valley Afghan Support Circle covers rent for the Al Nooris’ apartment.

While Reshad has his work visa and has been working as a driver for Doordash, he said he’s not making enough to cover their bills unassisted. He said he also feels pressure to earn money to send back to his family in Afghanistan, where many of his nine siblings are out of work now that the Taliban is back in charge.

Left: Mia Bukovstov, 15, talks with a friend in church Sunday morning, Dec. 18, 2022. Right: Karyna Bukovstov prays during a Sunday service at the First Slavic Baptist Church in Wenatchee.  (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

The Bukovstovs are still waiting for their work visas. They said they put in the paperwork to start the process back in June, but still aren’t able to work legally. On Friday, Dec. 16, Val Nikishin, a volunteer from their church, drove them the two hours to Yakima to the nearest U.S. Citizenship and Immigration field office to get fingerprinted, the next step in what has become a months-long process to get approval to work legally in the U.S.

“I want to start an LLC first thing. To start our own photography business,” Oleg said through Val. “But in the slow season, or if the business doesn’t take off, I’m willing to work anywhere just to support my family.”

For now, their rent is covered by another local volunteer organization. The Friends of Ukraine Refugees comprises mostly retirees and seniors from Grace Lutheran Church in Wenatchee, and they’re covering the rents for numerous Ukrainian refugee families. According to the group’s treasurer Dee Ann Gregg, they provided about $17,500 in rental assistance in November 2022.

“Friends of Ukraine, they do a lot of help for our family and for all refugees,” Karyna said. “They helped us for rent, for paper documents, for all sorts of things. Sometimes people from their group call and say ‘We want to buy winter clothes for your girls.’”

Both families said they want to become economically independent, and expressed a desire for their daughters to get the best education possible here in the U.S. Reshad noted that back in Afghanistan, his daughters would not be able to go to school.

While he and his wife are cut off from a mosque and their fellow Afghans in Western Washington, his two daughters who are old enough to attend school are making friends.

Karyna Bukovstov hugs a friend after Sunday service at the First Slavic Baptist Church in Wenatchee. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Finding a community of folks who share a similar culture has not been as difficult for the Bukovstovs as for the Al Nooris, but a war that pitted people from Slavic countries against one another can cause division and strife among a church congregation of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Moldovans. However, the rule about bringing up politics in church is simple and unbending, according to Nikishin, whose father is one of two pastors at First Slavic Baptist Church. 

“As soon as the war started, the pastor came out and said there is absolutely no politics in church and everybody agreed to it,” he said. “We’re not politicians. We’re a church.” 

The Bukovstovs and the Al Nooris come from vastly different countries, cultures and religions, but one central tenet is held in high regard in both families’ faith traditions – charity. During a time of year that many Americans mark with conspicuous consumption – from food and drink to baubles and trinkets – volunteers from the Afghan support circle, the Friends of Ukraine Refugees and the members of First Slavic Baptist Church in the Wenatchee Valley are proving they have not forgotten what the holiday season is really about. 

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